The Cambridge Handbook of the Social Sciences in Australia

By Ian McAllister; Steve Dowrick et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter 19
Interest Groups and Social
Ian Marsh

Australia's experience of, and discourse about, interest groups and social movements has a number of distinctive features. In the nineteenth century, after the establishment of self-government, but before the emergence of the mass parties, interest groups and social movements were the only mode of organised political action. This distinguished Australian from US democratic experience (Dahl 1966). Distinctive too are the substantive contributions of Australians to the international development of the women's, anti-nuclear, gay and animal-rights social movements. In addition, Australian scholars have pioneered the study of the role of groups in international regulatory systems. Stateinterest group-social-movement relations also present some distinctive features. The mobilisation of groups representing disadvantaged and/or vulnerable citizens appears to be wider and deeper than in other comparable polities.The state has, at least until the past few years, materially supported this development. Further, at an institutional level, Australia's federal structure has had a distinctive impact on group formation. And Australia 's social liberalism has, at least until the recent emergence of neoliberalism, also contributed a distinctive discursive atmosphere.

Over the past two or three decades, interest groups and social movements have acquired independent standing in the Australian political system. Over this same period, scholarly views have also differentiated. In some assessments, these formations are regarded as irremediably selfish and self-serving and the cause of an 'overloaded crown' (Kasper 2000). In others, they are critical political actors, either as key defenders of the values of the social-democratic state, or (in the case of the social movements) as champions of diversity in life choices. In between these poles lie analyses informed by other than systemic perspectives or by reference to particular normative concerns. For example, recent literature has focused on the problem of inclusion: Is engagement with the state tantamount to cooption? Does it progressively compromise grassroots mobilisation? There is also the problem of representation: To what extent can group leaders claim to speak for wider communities?

Interpretations of developments and issues by Australian scholars draw variously on British, US and Continental European paradigms and perspectives. British influence has been expressed in a strong empirical tradition, particularly in interest-group studies. This approach takes for granted the dependence of interest-group activity on


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